When it comes to safe coal ash disposal, the answer is almost never.
Dominion Virginia Power is consolidating 3.65 million cubic yards of coal ash from four unlined disposal ponds into a fifth clay-bottomed pond. They all sit on Possum Point, a spit of land in Dumfries, Virginia, between Quantico Creek and the Potomac River. The coal ash accumulated from 1948 to 2003, when Dominion’s facility there stopped burning coal to generate electricity.
To deal with the pond water in which the coal ash has marinated all these decades, on January 14, 2016, Dominion was granted a permit for a minimalist fix — to treat 215 million gallons for contaminants, then deposit the water into Quantico Creek.
This is OK with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, but the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission and environmental groups don’t believe Virginia’s requirements are stringent enough to remove all the mercury cadmium, and arsenic from the treated water.
Coal-ash water can be restored to safe drinking quality, but it’s a costly process. Lax water quality requirements leave wiggle room, as the Washington Post observed: “While Dominion officials called the water-handling permit requirements ‘strict,’ critics point out that the level of arsenic contaminants allowed by Virginia law is 15 times higher than what is allowed in neighboring North Carolina.”
North Carolina learned the hard way. It tightened standards only after Duke Energy had a pipe burst and spew coal ash and contaminated water into nearly 80 miles of the Dan River.
Quantico Creek is already far from pristine. People haven’t been allowed to consume its contaminated bass, catfish and eel since 1999. Adding lightly-treated coal-ash water isn’t going to improve the seafood.
As for the last pond ending up with all the coal ash residue, Dominion also plans to take a thrifty, minimalist approach by topping it with impermeable plastic, 24 inches of soil, and planted vegetation to keep rainwater out and minimize erosion at the site.
However, the pond’s sides under the surface will remain unlined forever. This means moisture can continue to seep in and leach contaminants into surrounding groundwater.
Instead of keeping a constant eye on the bottom line, Dominion could do the right thing for all concerned by choosing the middle path — to beneficially reuse all its own coal ash on its own land for another purpose.
By utilizing Macroencapsulation the ash in a fully-lined area, which renders it dry, inert and harmless for centuries to come, Dominion could use the land, for example, as a solar panel farm. The terrain could be molded to accommodate the panels as it’s filled with ash, and the infrastructure to generate electricity from solar power is already right there. It would be an easy win-win if environmental preservation and land maximization were top priorities.
Instead, Dominion is taking an expedient, penny-wise, pound-foolish approach to beat the clock be within the letter of Virginia law today. Since most Virginians aren’t easily conned into living with contaminated soil and water, it’s only a matter of time before Virginia is compelled to follow North Carolina’s lead and pay more than lip service to public health and safety.
Kicking the can down the road until another round of remediation becomes necessary will ultimately cost more time and money than doing it right the first time.